Unsurprisingly, Are You Here, Matthew Weiner's new film starring Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis, is not the kind of movie we have come to expect from both actors. Instead of a buddy comedy, Weiner offers a discomforting look at addiction and mental illness that challenges the audience's perception of both its male leads and the Mad Men creator. As his sophomore film effort hits theaters on August 22nd, the nine-time Emmy winner talked about "bromance" break-ups, bidding farewell to Don Draper, and becoming a Jeopardy champion.
When and how did the idea for Are You Here originate?
I wrote the Mad Men pilot 14 years ago and then about two and a half years later it got me a job on The Sopranos. I wanted to write about some things that were going on in my life at that time and the way that I felt the world was at the time. Even at the beginning of this huge technology shift, I was really feeling a sense of alienation, which is something I write about in general. But what really happened is that I was happily married — I had three kids at that point — and I wondered what had happened to my male friendships and to the guys with whom I had spent so much time. And seeing it in the media all the time in buddy movies and so forth I though, 'Okay this is obviously some sort of wish fulfillment that shows us this kind of relationship.' But male relationships are very tenuous, and they're always treated very glibly; I didn't think they were treated with the value I realized it had. That idea [was important] along with a sense of knowing that there are people who live with the mechanisms of society and alcohol or womanizing or whatever the psychological profile is who are unable to feel. And that they are consciously making efforts not to feel, whether they like it or not. That's sort of where Owen's character came from in the movie.
And then a lot of the other stuff in the film is personal: Inheriting a family business is something that is personal; mental illness is something that I have a personal relationship to — not myself, but everyone who sees the movie knows someone like Zach's character and has had someone like that in their life. I thought it would be interesting to put these things together in saying, 'So what holds people together? Is this relationship, which is probably the best thing in both of these guys' lives, holding them back? Is it keeping them from growing up? Is it just that's life and they don't want to grow up? Do they know the value of this bond? And I really just wanted to take the screen persona of Owen — who I knew was an actor with more depth — and say: What would happen if you took this guy seriously? What would happen if you peeled away the movie part of it that he thinks he's living in? Halfway through this movie you realize, 'Okay, this guy has drug problems and this man is mentally ill.' It produces a kind of heavy vibe; it's definitely a drama for half of the movie. But I'm completely unclear on how genre works.
Was the script something that you just put in a drawer or had you tinkered with it throughout those years?
Oh no, I tinkered with it a ton. Mike Uppendahl, who ended up being a director on Mad Men, was my first writer's assistant on the movie. And by the time I was finished I had probably dictated scenes to four different people. Besides the success of the show, which limited the time when I could make the movie, we were going out to different actors and trying to get different financiers.
How did the script change over ten years?
When you make your first pass on a script, you sometimes avoid a lot of the really emotional scenes. When the shooting schedule came in and we realized that the script was too long, it actually went through the Mad Men writers room. So you'll see all their names in the credits, because they helped me cut the movie down. That was a big step to make it produce-able. It's one thing to have a script that you're trying to sell; it's another thing to have to shoot it. They also helped me accentuate the parts of the story where I had to delve a little deeper. That's the thing that's great about having great writers as friends.
Is it true that you had to shoot Mad Men's sixth season in between shooting the film and then editing it?
Yes. We prepared and shot the film when I was finishing season five, then shot the sixth season, and then went back and cut the movie. Honestly, secretly, I knew it was there and I was very grateful to [producer] Gary Gilbert for waiting for it. It wasn't the typical process, I can tell you that. I really had very concentrated, intense time to work on it.
Are you someone who enjoys getting feedback, including criticism?
I'm like anybody else — and not just in my profession, but in any profession — in that I hate criticism. I'm completely defensive. On the other hand, believe it or not, two things happen: Number one is that I'm very responsive to it. And I actually think part of what works on Mad Men is that, even eight years into it, no one has ever hesitated to give me feedback. I guess I'm not as scary as I'd like to be, but I've benefited from it.
The other thing is — and anybody who works in this business will tell you this — just the act of seeing it with new people, you physically have a different experience of the project. And that in itself is great criticism. You can be overly sensitive to audience restlessness or silence or where laughter falls and things like that, but when a stranger is there it is actually the act of seeing it again, through new eyes.
What made now seem like the right time to finally make the film?
Honestly, I've been trying to make the film every day since I wrote it. And if there was an opportunity where my schedule worked out and there were actors available who I really, really wanted to do it. I didn't know if I was ever going to get to make this movie. After waiting seven years to get Mad Men on the air, I learned that when you see an opportunity, you do it. I didn't know that everything would sort of lay out at once. And this did all happen at once. And you know what? You wake up in the morning and you're shooting a movie and you just finished a season of the show and you're like, 'I'm not going to complain.' This is my childhood dream.
Given that so many people point to shows like Mad Men as sort of replacing the cinematic experience — and seeing film directors like Steven Soderbergh make the jump from film to television — why go for the big screen at all?
You know, I don't know what to say about that. That is an economic question for me. I think once the technology settles down, the adult drama — which is really what has flourished so much in TV — will return to the movies. But I'm a storyteller. And I don't really even think in terms of what something is or isn't — is it a movie? Or is it a play? Or is it a TV show? That depends on the story. And in terms of what's happening with the movie business, I'm not even that old and I've lived through two of these massive changes. The opportunity in television to work in this form — and I will compare the movie to a lot of television in the sense that it is an adult story without a formula — that is something that I hope will return to the movies. Because, as television has shown, there's obviously an audience for it.
Why the title change from "You Are Here" to "Are You Here"?
Because it turns out there are like five other movies with that title! [laughs] I didn't know that! When we finally sat down with Millennium, they were like, “You should search on IMDb.” And though you can have the same title for a movie, it's not like a song — I just felt that it should have its own name.
I know you can't give any specifics, but is there anything you can say about the final season of Mad Men?
No. There's nothing to say. I hope people enjoy it. Talking about the show in the past tense is weird for me. Everyone's like, “Well, what's your comment?” We did our best! I mean, what do you want me to say? It has continued, from the pilot, to be a magical, creative experience where I have been able to meet the most amazing people and work with the most creative people. And it was fresh the entire time. And that's all I can say. And I think the audience would agree. We never repeated ourselves and because of that I think it felt like we were making a new show every week. And that is a great way to live for seven years… Despite the controversy involved in splitting the seasons, I am really grateful that we haven't aired the ending yet. I'm looking forward to it.
This is totally off-topic, but I recently learned that you were a one-time Jeopardy champion.
Do you remember what your Final Jeopardy question was?
I remember the one that I missed more than the one I got. The one that I was missed—and I was a science teacher and my dad was a scientist, so this is super embarrassing. Everything about it was embarrassing. The day that I lost, I actually got Final Jeopardy right but I lost by a dollar. But the day that I won, I got Final Jeopardy wrong and didn't get as much money as I could have. And also felt very embarrassed. But the category was Elements, and the clue was something like: This greenish gas is named from a Greek work. And I think I put beryllium or some baloney answer because I was trying to think of green and not realizing the difference between Latin and Greek and all the things you don't do because you're in a panic, but it was chlorine. It was the dumbest thing in the world and I still hate chlorine for that reason!
So once the film is released and you've finished editing the new season, do you know what's next for you?
No, I don't. I'm going back to my previous day job of eavesdropping and daydreaming. I've written a play, which I may do at some point; that's something in a drawer that I wrote during the show. Don't even asked how that happened. But for the most part, I really want to take a little bit of time off — certainly until the show airs — and see what's on my mind. Ninety-two episodes in seven years. You asked the question about what changes: So much has changed. So I have to really see what's on my mind now.